Success: What Does It Really Mean?

Coach Wooden’s definition of success is one of his most-quoted pieces of wisdom: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

He first penned those words back in 1934, following several years of careful consideration and study of the subject. But what were the experiences that helped shape his beliefs and guide his thoughts on the matter? 

First was, of course, the insight of Coach’s father, Joshua. “Never try to be better than someone else. But always be learning from others,” he used to remind young John and his brothers. “Never cease trying to be the best you can be. One is under your control; the other isn’t.”

This same philosophy was reiterated in a slightly different way when Coach was still in high school. His history teacher, Mr. L. J. Shidler, charged each student to write his or her personal definition of success.

Related: Hear These Middle Schoolers Recite Coach Wooden’s Definition of Success

After reviewing the answers from the class, Mr. Shidler expressed disappointment that the young people had all generally agreed with the definition of the word as it appears in the dictionary: Success was “the accumulation of material possessions or the attainment of a position of power or prestige.” It was their teacher’s opinion, however, that success can come only from peace of mind. This assignment made a lasting impression on Coach.

Later, when Coach began teaching high school himself in Dayton, Kentucky, he found that students hadn’t changed much—nor had their parents:

I became somewhat surprised by the pressures placed on the students in my high school English classes primarily by their parents. It seemed that most parents wanted and expected their children to receive an A or a B. Now we all know that the good Lord in his infinite wisdom did not create us all equal as far as intelligence is concerned, any more than we are all equal as far as physical appearance, as far as size or as far as the environment into which we are born. We’re all different and that’s good. Not everyone could earn an A or B. But I felt that I had youngsters who earned the mark of C who were every bit as successful as some who received A’s or B’s.

However, it seemed to me in those early years many parents considered both teacher and youngster a failure if an A or B was not received. Perhaps the teacher was too young and inexperienced but might improve in time. If the youngster received a C, the average grade in that particular system, oh, that would be all right for their neighbors’ children, all of whom of course were average, but not for their own.

 

In my opinion, a mark received in class is no more valid a way to judge the success of a student than scores validly determine the success of a sporting event.

 

In my opinion, a mark received in class is no more valid a way to judge the success of a student than scores validly determine the success of a sporting event. It may determine a winner but not necessarily success…. I was concerned about my English students so I began searching for something that could help me become a better teacher and give my students a realistic goal or objective.

Around that same time, Coach spied a poem posted on a wall at a Dayton barbershop while he was waiting for a haircut:

At God’s footstool to confess,
A poor soul knelt and bowed his head.
“I failed,” he cried. The Master said,
“Thou didst thy best that is success.”

Related: John Wooden’s Legacy Is a How-To Guide for a Successful Life

Craig Impelman

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